Rock ’n’ roll diplomacy: Blinken’s performance with Ukrainian band gets mixed reviews

Antony Blinken

KYIV, Ukraine — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken channeled his guitar skills during his trip to Ukraine, going onstage to sing a classic song by Neil Young. He received mixed reviews, not because of his performance -- but due to the optics of an American diplomat playing in a bar while bombs from Russia were falling in the country.

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After a somber day of touring the capital city of Kyiv during his unannounced trip to Ukraine, Blinken got onstage Tuesday night at Barman Dictat, a basement cocktail bar where a punk-jazz band was playing, The New York Times reported.

The band, called 19.99, called Blinken to the stage and he strapped on a red Epiphone guitar, according to the newspaper.

“I know this is a really, really difficult time,” Blinken told the crowd. “But they (Russians) need to know, you need to know, the United States is with you, so much of the world is with you,”

“So, maybe we can try something?” Blinken said. “I don’t know if we can pull this off.”

The band then launched into the 1989 song by Young, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” the BBC reported. Blinken, an experienced guitarist who has a few tracks on Spotify, and the band gave a pedestrian performance, but it was clear that the secretary was attempting to use the song’s anthemic chorus, “keep on rockin’ in the free world” as a rallying call, according to the Times.

“He was connecting with eyes, with our band leader, with me … It was our first performance on stage but it feels like we were a band for two years,” guitarist Arsen Gorbach told BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, according to The Guardian. He added that Blinken had chosen the song and called the performance as “a very important point of Ukrainian history and cultural history.”

Others were not so certain.

Some pointed out that Young’s song referenced an America in disarray, citing young mothers addicted to drugs, the Times reported. It also made fun of then-President George H.W. Bush’s promise of a “kinder, gentler nation” -- “We’ve got a thousand points of light/For the homeless man/We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand,” Young sang.

The song’s intent has been misunderstood, like Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 song, “Born in the U.S.A.,” which is not a patriotic anthem but a criticism of then-President Ronald Reagan’s policies in America, according to the newspaper.

As Blinken sang, Russian troops were advancing near and around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

Kyiv-based analyst Oleksandr Kraiev called Blinken’s gig with the band “inappropriate,” The Associated Press reported.

“From my point of view, and generally speaking from the point of view of common Ukrainians, it was not a very appropriate sign to go to the bar to have a small song with our band,” Kraiev told the news organization. “It’s not, let’s say, a catastrophe, it’s not a faux pas, but it’s something that is not very desirable from the point of view of common Ukrainians.”

Other critics were not as gentle.

“Kharkiv region is being wiped from the Earth, people are leaving their homes, Kharkiv is under strike from air bombs. Sumy region is preparing, and a US top official is singing songs in a Kyiv bar,” wrote the head of one Ukrainian nongovernmental organization in a Facebook post.

“I advise the secretary of state to visit a military cemetery, not a bar,” Oleh Symoroz, a Ukrainian veteran who lost both his legs in combat, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, according to The Guardian.

Blinken’s spokespersons said that the secretary would not have performed at the event if he thought it was inappropriate.

“Never bet against Ukraine,” Blinken said during a Wednesday news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

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